Evangelism and Congregations

If you're going to read me, you need to know what I mean by evangelism: the purposeful introduction of the ideas, values and virtues of liberal religion to people who are unaware of them. Spreading the word. It is also convincing people who are observers of liberal religion to become actively involved with it, to mentally affiliate with it, specifically to make a covenant with others to orient their lives to it. After that, moving people from more passive supporters to active advocates, isn't really evangelism anymore, but spiritual development.

Look at this chart:

Contemporary UUism's growth strategies have been mostly about convincing visitors to join the congregation. President Peter Morales once described it as growth by "repelling fewer visitors".  In the terms of the chart: congregational visitors are a subsection of observers.

We will grow, as congregations grow.

How's that working out? Not too well.

O look, another naked emperor!

I wonder if there is an inherent contradiction between congregational functioning and evangelism.  The very reasons why people want to be in a congregation are why they do not want the congregation to grow very rapidly. All of the intimate community that is the promise of the congregation is made impossible if the congregation grows too rapidly. The same argument comes up when a congregation moves toward two services, or if people start talking about splitting off a new start offshoot, unless there is a significant distance involved. Some say that it is just human nature, or the limits of our mental capacity, to resisting trying to be close to more than 150 people. Concretely, in a system when resources are not unlimited, people in a congregation are always going to prioritize taking care of the present congregation more than reaching for more people.

Question: How many churches would cut back their music program in order to pay for an advertising/marketing campaign? 
Answer: None. 
Question: how many congregations would prefer that their minister cut back on pastoral care to members in order to make personal visits to the first time visitors at the previous Sunday? 
Answer: See above.  
How about a new approach?

Instead of hoping that our present congregations stop "repelling visitors", we should let them focus on building community and spiritual development. We turn the work of evangelism (introducing liberal religion and Unitarian Universalism) over to another group of people. They would work in a wide variety of spaces to develop relationships with interested people and to find others with whom they can enter into a covenant: be it in online spaces, in non-congregational groupings, in new congregations, or into existing congregations.

A centralized CRM system cannot do the same work as the local congregation. And vice-versa.

When I talk about reorganization, centralizing "contact relationship management" into a denominational body, I am advocating creating a denominational evangelism capability.  Because that work is not being done on the congregational level.


  1. What you're saying about our natural tendency to form in groups of 150 or less and to resist growth beyond that is so important. We need to support and strengthen such groups and to grow more of them, but the idea that all or even most of them will grow beyond that mark is simply not happening. I see that here -- we have a 150+-year track record of showing that we're good at being exactly the size we are, and no growth strategy any minister or board has employed has changed that. But could our town support another small group of UUs? Yeah, I think so. Somebody might want to do that sometime, if they want to see UUs around here. But it's not going to be the local small congregation that does it.

  2. Oy veh, it took my comment and ate it. I don't know that I have the energy to do it again.

    Basically, you're right.

    And especially that we group in small 150 or less groups, and we don't often grow beyond that.

    So growth has to happen in some other way. And that's the UUA.

  3. Cynthia, I moderate the comments and there are times that I cannot get to them right away. So, don't fear; they have not been eaten. I am just napping.

  4. Tom,

    If -- as Cynthia as suggested -- we're really good at forming 150 person groups, maybe we should focus on forming more groups instead of trying to make the 150 person groups grow beyond their apparent equilibrium?

  5. Joanne9:02 AM

    Following this thread, there are congregations that have more than 150. So it can be done if the system is in place to create with the larger whole smaller groups that provide intimacy and development, like choirs, affinity groups, etc.
    On your larger suggestion though, is there a model out there, perhaps another denomination, that you think attracts observers and assists them to the local congregation or gathering?

  6. Steve and Cynthia, the only problem with that model (lots of 150 member congregations) is the problem of sustainability -- what level of activity, ministry, facilities are sustainable at that level of membership? If you can get those factors in balance, it works.

  7. Joanne, I don't think any of the mainline churches have solved this problem.... they are shrinking faster than the UU's. I don't really know the evangelicals -- they have a very large public presence for Jesus in the public sphere, and lots of non-denominational churches on the ground, so it doesn't seem like they have the same problem.

  8. Steve Cook11:49 AM

    I'd certainly like to hear more about the mid-size to large UU congregations that have been with us for a long time--have they found answers the rest haven't? Is it site specific (university town, high tech nexus?) Large endowment? Historic niche (Concord, MA?) Are they declining at the same rate as the <150 congregations?

  9. Ah they talk the Jesus talk...

    but are they walking the Jesus walk?

    someone said they the outflow of "Evangelical" chuch A becomes the inflow of "Evangelical" church B and the "Evangelical" seeker is repeat offender when it comes to altar calls that turn into church shopping.

    All Churches are created good, all Churches are fallen, all can be redeemed . . .

  10. Right -- if we accept that we're going to have a heavy percentage of groups under 150 (even if we don't make more, and even if some can grow, this is still where our bulk is), then the question is, what do those groups need to do their work better?

    Small congregations are consumed by those back-office functions to the point where sometimes it feels like they can do little else. Shifting that work to the Association just makes sense.

    I fear churches this size are not sustainable with our current model. We need to re-imagine what churches should look like and, importantly, what the UUA should look like to help them be sustainable.

    P.S. Yeah, I know you moderate, but it was responding weirdly, and not giving me the confirmation that it went through. Glad it did, though.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Complicating the Great Reformation: Dialectical Theology (Part 11 of many)

the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

The 8th Principle

Denise Levertov's Poem about Thomas

The Great Reformation (Dialectical Theology, Part 10 of many)